by David Cohen
D.H. in Hollywood
from "Howard Hodgkin: Paintings 1975-1995"
Somewhat pompously, Sir Howard Hodgkin
is fond of remarking that, as a painter,
he feels like a member of "an endangered
species." His retrospective, which had been
at the Metropolitan Museum in New York and
in Fort Worth, Tex., concluded its tour at
London's Hayward Gallery this winter.
As a confirmed fan of Hodgkin's I have
to confess that this show did him no good.
It was stuffed with his big pictures,
painted either for his dealers or his ego
but incompatible in essence with his
intimist vision, and it was abysmally
installed at the Hayward. Amazingly,
David Sylvester, the doyen of British
critics, took credit for the hang,
which looked like it was done over
Hodgkin was followed at that venue
by a sprawling -- and for this viewer,
yawn-inducing -- survey of appropriation
sculpture of the 1980s and 1990s
(45 artists, including the likes of
Richard Hamilton, Richard Wentworth
and Damien Hirst), which seemed to
fulfill Sir Howard's worst Last of
the Mohicans fantasy. But painting
is endangered only if we constrict
our attention to a narrow band of
the museum world, and even then
it's pretty tendentious. Not only
are there plenty of creditable
painters of Hodgkin's own
generation still hard at it, but
painting is also enjoying a high
with young "cutting edge" artists.
In fact, a wholesome, cross-generational
crop of painting shows in the first
quarter of this year refutes Sir Howard's
LAY IT ON THICK
In the work of two elder statesmen
of British painting, passion and energy
find a corollary in awesomely heavy
impasto, as if laying it on thick is
some kind of token of commitment.
The actual paint almost becomes a
sculptural object in the work of
both Frank Auerbach (b. 1931),
who showed new paintings and
drawings at Marlborough, and
Gillian Ayres (b. 1930), who was
given a retrospective which emphasized
recent work at the Royal Academy.
Auerbach is one of the heros of the
School of London, who perseveres
with his own kind of gritty observation.
But actually he concedes nothing in the
beefiness of his form or color to the
nominally abstract Ayres. Both pummel
improbable heaps of pigment about their
canvases. Both overwhelm and disconcert
with the sheer machismo of their enterprise.
With Auerbach, this has to do with
the mythology of how his works come
about. The effort that goes into each
"hard won image" of his -- which he
scrapes down after each unsuccesful
attempt to capture an authentic take
on his subject, whether a long-suffering
sitter or urban landscape -- is the stuff
of legend. A portrait usually requires a
100 or so sittings, with the artist
scraping down each failure before the
next attempt. And yet the finished work
bodies forth as an expressive explosion,
with little indication of the ghosts of
former efforts underneath. There is nothing
lugubrious about his color -- in contrast
to Leon Kossoff, whose mode of operation
is very similar to Auerbach's. In fact,
the new pictures are almost impressionistic
in their paint treatment and sensitivity to
color nuance, with no let-off in the violent
action within the paint. These new paintings
are among his best so far, and stand comparison
with the best by their nearest exemplars,
Jack Yeats and Soutine.
Ayres machismo has to do with the sheer
scale of her canvases in relation to their
impasto, and the "unfeminine" robustness
of handling. Of course, we are in dangerous
territory when we start using essentialist,
gendered characterizations in relation to
painting traits. But it seems justified in
relation to Ayres because she so coquettishly
plays with and against gendered expectations.
Her floral themes and brash, saccherine
colors -- pinks and oranges and bright blues
brought into clanging collisions -- tease
received prejudices about decoration.
Her pictures are at once butch and girly.
Actually there are a number of male
abstract painters of Ayres' generation
-- Hodgkin, John Hoyland and Patrick Heron
spring to mind -- whose palette and forms
juxtapose the strident and the fey in similar
fashion. But let's not spoil the argument,
or the connection with another painter who
staged an impressive show recently,
Therese Oulton (b. 1953).
Oulton was a pupil of Ayres and she
exhibits at Marlborough, the same gallery
as Auerbach. Impasto is also an issue in her
style, but it is not the bravura expressionist
impasto of these older painters; on the contrary,
it is so meticulously achieved -- and conceived --
as almost to be a conceptualist device.
Oulton creates an all-over decorative painterly
continuum with minutely observed, fidgety little
marks that stand proud of the picture surface.
Sometimes these build up, across the canvas,
into an almost serial caterpillar motif; earlier
in her career, these now-trademark patterns
looked in isolation like the ruff around the neck
of a Dutch burgher, but now they have more
the quality of snake skin.
Earlier Oulton paintings intimated strange
landscapes in the romantic swirl of their gestalt,
and as the colors looked to be straight out of
Constable, she was heralded as a neo-romantic.
But she resented this label, and started to move
into hermetically sealed and belligerently illegible
forms. She is still more interested in finding
pictorial means to suggest phenomenological processes,
and in folding these back into her own painterly language,
than she is in representing nature as such, but has started
to readmit the sort of richly ambiguous forms that enliven
her work with metaphoric possibilities. The best works can
still have a landscape element -- albeit inadvertently,
as in one picture which actually recalls a Chinese scroll
in the way under-hanging cloud forms and what could be
banks of reed punctuate the delectable monotony of an allover
sea of browny gold caterpillar motifs.
Delectable monotony is the defining principle in
the monochrome canvases of Zebedee Jones (b. 1970)
who showed recently at Waddington Galleries.
Typical of many abstract painters of a generation
dominated by neo-conceptualism, he shares
the nonchalant, stand-offish, cool attitudes of
his peers working in appropriation, video or
installation. This is art about art, to be sure,
clever and able to stand back from itself in
critical aloofness. Waddington also shows
Fiona Rae, with whom Jones shares an affection
for fashionable colors -- the vibrant industrial
pastels that dominate graphic design and retro
clothing alike -- and Ian Davenport, with whom
he shares a radically reductive picture-making
strategy. But Jones actually seems closer to
Oulton than to his contemporaries, for all these
tell-tale signs of generational commonality.
He has found a way to paint unexpressively
and with exacting reserve and yet to allow
just enough of a possibility of meaning or
representation to tease the attention of the viewer.
His canvases are stretched over frames over
six inches deep; because of the paired-down
quality of what's on the surfaces, the sides
are brought into play. Paint is scraped along
meticulously, usually on the horizontal, with
some sort of ultra fine comb or industrial brush
by the looks of it. The effect is like Richter
drag abstractions but without the color.
But the paint forms a scum at the edges,
like the styling gel that accumulates at
the edge of your fingers if you've ever
greased your hair. The drag is never
quite perfect, allowing for varying degrees
of surface incident: the eye senses lesions
in the top layer with intimations of layers underneath.
In the sparser compositions, these breaks
can read like some sort of musical notation;
other times, however fanciful, they can look
like clusters of trees. On some of the smaller
squares the dance of the brush (although
I don't think this is what it is; the marks
are surely accidents in a colder process
than anything suggested by the word
"brushstroke") are Rymanesque in their
business. To my eye, I must confess,
his paintings are actually more
satisfying than Ryman's. Jones has
found a slick way of achieving what
Kant calls "purposiveness without purpose,"
whereas Ryman is too purposively purposeless.
Incidentally, Jones has declined to have his
works reproduced on the Internet, which in
view of his minimalism is quite understandable.
The reader will have to rely on my powers of
ekphrasis, which is fine by me.
A DROP OF POP
On the surface, Patrick Caulfield (b. 1936),
also at Waddington, could not be a more
different painter than Frank Auerbach --
surface being the operative word.
Deadpan flatness, pictorial closure
and precisionism are the hallmarks of
this control freak. His images are as
hard-won as Auerbach's, but what holds
production up, it would seem, is an artist
lost in Apollonian effort rather than
Dionysian creativity. Caulfield has
dropped his trademark motif, his
illustrational black outlines imposed
on fields of continuous color. What he
has kept, in keeping with his background
as a pioneer British Pop artist, are
the trompe-l'oeil delights of
perspectival teases, of contrasting
over-all decorative abbreviation with
isolated passages of conventionalised
realism, as if Richard Estes has come
along and painted a detail on a Stuart Davis.
I say he is Apollonian rather than Dionysian
but ironically the bottle emerges as a theme
in Happy Hour, 1996, a masterful
still-life with cartoon liquor bottles
and a "real" glass of wine vying for
definable space within a whirl of
receding awnings, hanging lightbulbs,
reflections and shadows. The image is
"tight" in every sense -- a masterful cocktail.
Just over the road from Caulfield's Cork Street
exhibition, at the Victoria Miro Gallery,
Chantal Joffe (b. 1969) and Dawn Mellor
(b. 1970) staged a two-woman show.
Both painters have produced small canvases
of approximately 10 x 8 in. which were hung
in blocks in a very stylish and effective way.
Such an installation might have emphasized a
throw-away quality in each artist, and each
certainly ploughs the territory of "bad painting,"
but actually these mesmerizing little pictures
warrant close attention, Joffe's more than Mellor's
in the final analysis.
Mellor's images made more thematic sense in
this sequential hang: she makes tight, schematic,
iconic little pictures of girls doing naughty things.
The color is rich, the paint thick but smoothly applied,
the drawing deliberately cramped. In various pictures,
Marilyn Monroe sports blond braids which do odd things;
in one, for instance, a braid becomes a tail issuing from
her backside in the manner of Mapplethorpe's famous
bull-whip. Other film stars are depicted in equally
gruesome contortions -- I'll spare you details of what
Liza Minelli does with her walking cane! Katherine Hepburn
has a wig gushing from her vagina. Another beauty peels
her face off like a dress. Yet the cumulative effect of all
this abjection, far from horrifying, seems rather fey,
almost sweet, thanks probably to the disarming naivete
of her painterly craft.
Joffe is far looser and seemingly spontaneous in
her handling of paint. These new, small pictures
are much more likeable and effective than the huge
blow-ups of pornographic imagery that brought her
to attention at her Royal College of Art degree show
a couple of years ago. Thematically they are relatively
benign, compared both to Mellor and her earlier work.
They have a poignancy that belies their sloppiness
and seeming nonchalence and are actually close in
spirit to Elizabeth Peyton's quite remarkable paintings
of rock musicians exhibited at Gavin Brown's gallery
in New York recently.
Like Mellor and Joffe, Merlin James (b. 1961)
taps nonchalance and naivity as means of
paintery sophistication. And like Oulton
and Jones he is crucially concerned with
the problematics of paint. James, staging
his first commercial show in London for
several years, at Francis Graham-Dixon,
is well regarded as a writer on art,
although you don't need to know that
to sense a fierce pictorial intelligence
at work: these subtle, poetic, sometimes
charming, often odd-ball pictures ooze
criticality. His subjects come from
the real world -- nondescript buildings
in landscapes, depopulated interiors,
isolated architectural details -- but
are treated with sufficient perfunctoriness,
drawn virtually in shorthand, as to avoid
the traps of observational realism.
I guess he is in similar territory to
Caulfield in a way, but -- to put it
bluntly -- he is not as anally retentive.
Within restrained parameters he allows
himself room for expressive maneouvre.
Spontaneity is genuine, but circumscribed.
Subjects like an easel in the middle of an
empty studio, a prosaic sub-Bauhaus
suburban house, scaffolds and stairwells
and revolving doorways are at one and
the same time sophisticated ciphers for
an art about art, and actual structures
to be filled in or painted over. His mood
is vaguely nostalgic, perhaps because of
his nursery colors and simplified notation,
perhaps because his work recalls
the strategies of early modernism.
Certainly he plays games with the syntax
of painting: an easel is painstakingly
crafted out of applied bits of found metal
collaged into the paint surface, for instance.
Sometimes he risks absurdity, of "painting
by numbers," of being intentionally deadpan,
in a sophisticated dialogue with art history.
But he is never really tongue-in-cheek.
Even hitting the tonal and textural extremes
of murkiness or quirkiness just turn out to
be ways of eliciting that enigmatic poignancy
so resonant in his more even-keel compositions.
Exhibitions mentioned in this review:
"Material Culture: The Object in British Art of the 1980s and '90s" at the Hayward Gallery, Apr. 3-May 18, 1997.
"Frank Auerbach: Recent Work" at Marlborough Fine Art, Jan. 9-Feb. 15, 1997.
Gillian Ayres at the Royal Academy of Arts, Feb. 6-Mar. 2, 1997.
"Therese Oulton: Recent Painting 1995-97" at Marlborough Fine Art, Apr. 4-May 2, 1997.
"Zebedee Jones: New Paintings" at Waddington Galleries, Jan. 15-Feb. 8, 1997.
"Patrick Caulfield: New Paintings" at Waddington Galleries, Mar. 26-Apr. 26, 1997.
Chantal Joffe and Dawn Mellor at Victoria Miro Gallery, Apr. 4-May 2, 1997.
"Merlin James: Critical Pictures" at Francis Graham-Dixon Gallery, Jan. 24-Mar. 8, 1997.
DAVID COHEN is a London-based art historian and writer.